|The Master's Muse
Author: anisurnois PM
When innocent and kind Anastasia Steele receives some news that forever changes her life, she comes at the crosshairs of one unyielding law, an irresistible proposal, and two men. Will Ana's new tragic circumstances change her bargaining power with the enigmatic chilling Christian Grey? Or will she choose a safe goodbye with the one man who always understood her?Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Drama - Anastasia S. & Christian G. - Chapters: 40 - Words: 229,450 - Reviews: 1,611 - Favs: 482 - Follows: 720 - Updated: 05-21-13 - Published: 01-20-13 - id: 8927996
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Readers and reviewers - thank you so much for your generous reviews of the last chapters. Hopefully, you'll like this one as well. It's a bit longer than the others but I hope you will find it worth it. If you read through, the answer to whether Ana will tell Christian - a question you have posed - is answered. Thanks again for your reviews and support. - xo Annie
CHAPTER 14 - Time
My hands fall lifelessly from Christian's hair at Taylor's announcement, and plop to my sides. The effect of the motion on Christian is instant. He turns to stone, his posture straightens, and he stands taller and angular like yesterday outside of my building. The warmth and anguish is gone from his eyes and arctic ice has taken their place. Odd as this moment is to have an epiphany, I'm having it. This is a defense mechanism for him. At first I had thought he looked like this when he was mad but I saw mad today, and mad is the Dragon. Arctic Grey is something else, something that at a very elemental level scares him. I am so sure that I'm right that the words tumble out of my mouth without my planning them.
"There's a time and place for fear, Christian, but today is not it."
I raise my hands so he sees that I am choosing to bring them to his hair again. I hope he understands my gesture. The ice shifts in his eyes and I think I see surprise there, but not at my gesture but rather at my words. Perhaps, he did not think it was obvious. Or perhaps he had never considered fear as the trigger himself. Whatever it is, he bows his head into my hands, and the image of crowning a king comes unbidden to mind. I close my fingers on his hair like a diadem and, in that moment, for me at least, a monarch is born. And his first word ring with finality,
I don't know what he means but I know I will tell him everything then. No doubt he'll run for the hills. Who wants to be involved with someone with both feet out of the door? But in that small word – "tomorrow"- I see a Herculean effort on his part. The puzzle pieces swim again in my head – my brain is obviously working on the puzzle on its own with no cares at all that I'll soon be nipple-naked in front of two men, instead of one. He turns and walks out of the room.
I use the alone time to try to calm down. It is sure to be awkward with both of them here, a pair of nude underwear, and an unbuttoned shirt. I'm far from devout but now I very seriously say a small prayer for a bolt of lightning that gets me out of this and also that my parents, wherever they are, are on a date and are not looking down at me. I hear steps outside the room and sit on the chesterfield couch, crossing my arms over my chest and curling my legs under me. I can't face Jose standing.
Christian walks in the room first, looks at me sitting, and seems pleased. Right behind him is Jose. He does not look like Jose. He is wearing a button-down pale blue shirt over a dark pair of jeans I have never seen before, and his only dress shoes are polished better than the brand-new hardwood floor. He must have spent his one-month wages from his landscape work on these clothes. The landscape company doesn't pay him even minimum wage. He gets no breaks, and I have seen his back tense often at sudden movements even though he's never admitted that it hurts. And I'm sure the money from the paintings is going to support his four younger sisters. And even in these 24 hours of paradise, his new clothes break me.
To anyone else, he would look calm and with that undefinable air of genius that we know but can't describe. But to me, his fear and pain are obvious in his tight eyes. The moment I see him, no matter how much my body and mind want to wrap around Christian Grey, my heart wants the only home it has known for years: Jose's chest. But when he looks at me, his loss is so obvious that my ribs contract violently against my lungs and, if I didn't have my arms across my chest, I'm not sure what would hold me together. I look at the floor, working furiously for some control.
"So, Mr. Grey, what do you have in mind?" Jose starts politely, and even his voice is new. It has an edge of authority that masks his fear really well.
"I'll give you full creative license, Mr. Rodriguez. My only conditions are that it is in this room, in that attire, and in the same theme and colors as the others."
Jose nods and walks around the room, looking at it differently than I did, and probably differently than Christian. I have a feeling that to Christian, this room is the finale, the end product. To Jose, it is a blank slate from which he can start. Jose runs his hand over the walls, the furniture, as if he sees with all his senses. I know him enough to know that he is smelling, hearing, and maybe even tasting the faint lavender scent of the room in his tongue.
As he touches the four-poster, he asks again politely. "Do you want the inequality to show?"
He is directing Christian but, somehow, I think this question was meant for me. My eyes fly to Christian. He looks guarded. Jose has hit close to something.
"Inequality of what?" No one, myself included, could sense anything in Christian's voice.
"The room has a 16th Century feel but my paintings have a modern woman in mind. The contrast is artistically inconsistent. So I was wondering if you want the contrast reflected on principle."
I grin proudly like a PTA mom. Jose knows his art. He spends every penny he can put away on art books and every hour he is not working, reading them.
Christian nods and I think he looks a little impressed. "I will leave it to you to make the call on that. I'll be…interested to see the resolution that you find myself." Christian looks at me then and his words from earlier that he is trying to find a compromise ring in my ears. Is that it? Is that what he is asking Jose to inspire?
"Alright," Jose nods, and his eyes focus and squint on the painting of the braid and then back to me.
"Now, some business details," Christian continues, and I have a feeling he is doing it here for my benefit as well. "I understand your circumstances and I'd like to assure you that I won't turn you in. I'm sure you heard this from Ana as well."
Ana? Christian never calls me Ana. Jose looks just as surprised as I am. Christian pretends he does not notice, but I'm suddenly sure he accomplished whatever it was he wanted to.
"I'd like to pay the same commission I would have paid any artist. My understanding is that a painting of this magnitude would cost about $40,000. Would you agree with that?"
I want him. Right here, right now. Not because of the money but because of the fact that he gave Jose the choice to negotiate. I know what that means to Jose, and a look at his face says that he has never once been asked for his opinion in these matters. He is gaping. My eyes prickle a little as I watch my friend's birth. Much less and much later than he deserves, but still more than he has ever had. Embrace it, I beg him with my eyes, afraid that the shadow complex won't allow him. And he does although his voice is subdued.
"Thank you. That sounds very fair."
I almost jump up and down on the couch and if it weren't for my bra-less state that would cause other things to bounce, I might have done it. It must have been obvious on my face though because Christian smiles the first smile since Jose came.
"Now," Christian continues, "I'm sure you understand that that's a significant amount of cash to be paid under the table. It would bring unwanted scrutiny to us both. I'll consult with my lawyer further tomorrow, but at the moment the plan is for me to set up a trust fund with you as the beneficiary. Trust funds are private affairs unaffected by immigration status. My idea is that the fund will be set up as a gift, rather than compensation for your services, for obvious reasons. The other benefit of the gift trust for you is that I'm required to bear the tax consequences of that gift. I'm sure the legal details can be worked out. Would this arrangement work for you?"
Every day, in this country, I have met more fair people than not. And I have met some rotten ones and some great ones too. But Christian Grey seems to need a spectrum of humanity that's his alone. Right up there parallel with Jose's. I can see my admiration reflected in Jose's face although I'm willing to bet my supplement's formula that he is not daydreaming of biting Christian's lower lip and wrapping his legs around his waist, like I am right now.
"I don't know anything about taxes and law, Mr. Grey but as long as we do it in a way that takes care of my sisters and parents too, I'll be grateful." Jose says and he looks self-conscious, his eyes drifting to his polished shoes.
"Sure, we can discuss those details. Now, for your part, from a legal standpoint, it would help if you thought of the painting, not as work, but as a gift to Ana and myself." Christian emphasizes Ana and myself. Jose looks at me briefly and nods.
But I don't have time to linger on Jose's face because a hideous thought occurs to me. "What about Hyde? If he does not get something from this..." I whisper and shake my head, too horrified to finish my thought. I know Hyde would blackmail Jose until he takes every penny and then enslave him to work for free afterwards and not even pay him the measly fraction he gives him now.
Christian nods. "Don't worry, Ana. I'll pay Hyde as well."
"Mr. Grey, that wouldn't be fair to you. You'd be paying for this twice over, and I like to sleep at night." Jose says and under the politeness, I hear both fear and conviction. "I can just keep some of it and give the rest to Hyde."
Christian raises his hand like he did with Dalton and like he probably does with all his employees. "No, Mr. Rodriguez. You'll take what you deserve. Trust me, I can afford it."
At that moment, Taylor comes in with Jose's easel, paints, lights, and various things that Jose has explained to me what they are over the years but I can never remember. Jose has his brushes and his sketchbook himself. He never lets anyone touch those. Sometimes, I wonder whether his fingerprints are imprinted on them.
I watch him in fascination as he walks in various corners of the room, squints his eyes, takes some more steps, and starts all over again. I look back at Christian and he is watching me with that same break-a-code look. I give him a smile and he smiles back but it does not touch his eyes. It reminds me of his smile at Tryst when he decided not to discuss all his reasons. Goosebumps prickle my neck.
"I'll leave you two to it." He says after a moment, and turns, leaving the door open as wide as it will go. Taylor is right outside the door, and takes a few steps down the hall but not enough to have gone to the very end. Jesus, is he ordered to chaperone us? The thought is both horrifying and kind of funny.
Jose continues to move about, deciding on perspective, but he doesn't say anything.
"So…umm… that was very nice of him?" I start, feeling nervous.
"Yes, very nice." He sounds a little off.
"You went shopping." I try for some humor. "You clean up well, Senor." He snorts but I think he's blushing.
"Yeah, I guess. Didn't want to look like a bum in Bill Gates' home."
"Jose, you're not a bum. Don't say that." I hate it when he refers to himself that way.
"I'm not Christian Grey," he says quietly, and I'm not sure if that was for me or him.
"No, you're Jose and you're perfect the way you are, so stop saying stuff like that." If I wasn't almost naked, I would have stomped my foot.
He ignores me the way he always does with this, and finally decides where he wants his easel. He places a quarter on the floor to mark his spot.
"So, what's up with this room?" He asks after a while, now measuring various things I don't understand. For example, why does he need to measure the height of a pillow?
"What do you mean?" I'm intrigued. I definitely get a dark vibe from it, but I think it's more sensual than anything else.
He raises an eyebrow. "Maybe it's just me but a red leather mattress doesn't spell out a lot of zzzz-s in my book. What's the deal, were they out of quilts at Crate and Barrel?"
I giggle. Crate and Barrel is Jose's mom's favorite store. She can't afford to shop there but the woman whose house she cleans lets her keep the catalogs. To Jose, and honestly to me too, Crate and Barrel is as nice as things get. But Jose makes a good point.
"Umm… I don't think this room is for sleeping," I say, my cheeks matching the bed. "He says it was built for this painting." I leave out the replica part. It seems too private even for Jose.
Both of Jose's eyebrows shoot up. "He built it for this?"
I get Jose's reaction. It was the same thing I thought but now, after Christian's cryptic hope for a compromise, I'm starting to think of this room more as a necessity than a whim.
Jose shakes his head. "Still weird. 16th Century right in the middle of modernism?"
Jose's instincts are ruled by art. If things don't go together in a painting, they don't go together in real life. I wonder how he's going to compromise here, and what hint it will give Grey. Suddenly, Jose feels more like a savior than an artist.
He walks towards me. "I'll need you to stand up, Ana," he says, but his voice is now really gentle. He is back to the Jose I know and love.
Oh hell, it's now. My hands start shaking and my stomach churns. Jose is going to see my nipples and my knickers. I try to breathe but air is lodging somewhere in my throat and a dry heaving sound leaves my chest. Jose walks over to his box of paints and comes back and kneels on the floor in front of me. And in his hands, he has my white sheet from the gallery.
"Here," he says really quietly, and throws it over my shoulders. I clutch it over my chest for dear life, and, if I weren't très déshabillé, I would hug him. He must have known I'd fall apart. He grabs my hands in each one of his.
"Hey, listen to me. Okay? It's just me and you, just like any other time, except in a creepy porno room." He tries to make a joke but I'm beyond help. Suddenly, I feel like I've lost touch not just with everything else but also with myself. Sure, now I know that Christian wants me but getting paid to stand in nothing but underwear and erect nipples for a painting feels really low.
"Here, I'll tell you what I'll do, okay? You can wear your sheet, and when the time comes for your body, we'll just do it one part at a time, like before. I'll put it together, I promise. Okay?" He is rushing through his words but what he says makes me feel much better. He looks like he's about to break too, and it's enough to make me furious with myself. Way to be ridiculous, Steele. It's not enough that you got Jose in this mess, now you're making him miserable too. Man up, I mean, woman up. Everyone has nipples, you're not the only one. I stand up, the sheet falling to floor around me like a veil.
"There's my girl," Jose says. "Now, I need to measure you a little. Still with me?"
If Jose were a doctor, he would have the gentlest bedside manners ever. I nod at him with a smile, determined to make this as easy for him as possible from now on. "Yes, I'll be okay."
He takes a measuring tape from his box and starts with my face. Eyes, cheekbones, neck. The tape is warm from his hands, and worn from years of use. It feels soft against my skin, and it too has the faint smell of Jose's soap. Jose tries not to touch me anymore than he needs to. Then he measures me shoulder to hipbone, shoulder to shoulder, ribs, hips, waist, legs. He only writes some of it down. His breathing changes but the only way to tell is by his rising chest.
"How do you decide what to write down and what not?" I ask because I feel a little awkward standing here with a measuring tape right around my waist and Jose in his knees in front of me.
He stands up, apparently all done, takes a step back and gives me a proud smile. "Because, like I always knew, you're perfectly symmetrical. That's why you make a good Muse." He shrugs as if this makes a lot of sense.
"Yes. Most people's dominant sides – right or left – are slightly out of proportion. You're perfectly symmetrical. They say Botticelli's Muse for Venus, Simonetta Vespucci, had perfect symmetry as well. Congrats, Steele. That's good company to be in." He chuckles and throws the measuring tape in the box. I snort, not bothering to sound feminine. Only Jose would think of Venus when measuring me.
"Okay, now go sit on that table there, right to the left of your braid painting." He says. I follow his orders and he hands me the pillow he was measuring earlier. I look at him confused.
"C'mon, sit on it. That table is made of oak and for as long as you'll be sitting, your ass will thank me."
Oh, that makes sense. I do as I'm told and Jose fidgets about until he has me where he wants me.
"So, what's the plan for this?" I'm curious. I'm wondering about that compromise.
"Well, I'm still working on it, but I think it'll be cool if your face is the center of the painting and your back and the braid is faded away in the background."
Brilliant. Like a mirror image. Obviously, he has picked up, as I have, that the braid painting has some meaning for Christian. And his solution is that whatever that meaning is, it should be faded, in the past, like this 16th Century room. And the face, the modern woman, essentially should win.
"Umm, Jose, I should probably tell you – I'm cutting my hair tomorrow. Do you think it will mess you up?"
He looks at me like I'm growing horns. "Why are you cutting your hair?"
"Because it takes too long to dry. And I…umm… I need the money for a ticket home." I don't need to hide things like this from Jose. He gets it. He was contemplating donating sperm a while ago but I don't think he was serious. José was raised in a very traditional family and, as the only son, he was groomed to be the patriarch since age 13. The idea of unknown little José-s running around would torment him at night.
"Knock that shit off, Ana. You're not selling your hair. Grey is paying for this, we'll get you a ticket home. But if you want it gone for practical reasons, that's up to you. But my artistic vote goes against it." He goes and sits at his easel.
His eyes focus on me and I make to close mine before remembering that this time, I need them open. The sound of his sketching takes over and, as always, it soothes me. Soon, I'm daydreaming.
I wonder where Christian Grey is in this palace. Probably breathing fire down someone's neck for going to the grocery store. Why do you think that's funny, you lunatic? The man is a menace. But I can't help it. I know I'm supposed to be scared and, when the wrath reaches Dragon proportions, I am, but at other times, it's like watching a very good-looking Hulk.
The more time passes, the more aggravated I get, sitting here on this leather cushion that is sticking to my butt and watching paint dry. Probably literally, if this room is that new. For one, apparently, I was thinking that Christian would come up and … And what? Does he look like the type that would just hang out and kick it for a while? Still, can't he just come up and say hi? I know what my problem is. I miss him - ridiculous, preposterous idea that it is. I try to reason with myself but it's hopeless because, apparently, when it comes to Christian Grey, I don't think with my head at all. I huff and Jose looks up.
"What's up with you? You look all red."
"Hmmm… must be the walls." I mumble and go back to being a statute.
Sitting about and modeling for a painting is not fun. Actually, it sucks. You can't do anything but think. And as someone with lots of thinking to do, I hate it. This is not how I want to spend my 24 precious hours of embargo. I wanted to spend them touching his hair and practicing my kissing and seeing if he really tastes as good as I remember, and taking off this shirt that I'm wearing together, and finding out if the jeans really make it look bigger or…. Oh God, stop. Right now. Yeah, okay, but how does he walk around with that thing?
"Seriously, Ana, what's wrong with you?"
"What? What do you mean?"
"You look like you're about to have a stroke."
"Do you need a break or something?"
"No, no. Keep going."
Yeah, a break is all I need right now. I want this to end as soon as possible because now, here, in his shirt that smells like him, in this room, for his painting and with these ridiculous 15-year-old thoughts, my achy thighs are not the only problem. The bigger problem is that I'm pretty sure this is what people mean by "really wet." And all I have on is this ridiculous silk underwear, which will probably show it. Okay, okay, okay, I know what will work. Our father who art in heaven, hollowed, I mean hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. Oh man, it's not working. Okay, 173 times 432 is ….ummm… 74,636. Yes, I'm pretty sure.
"That's it. I'm calling a break." Jose says with finality, shaking his head. Good thing too because right then Mrs. Jones comes and brings us snacks and drinks. Oh goody, ice! José watches me like he's not sure if he should call 9-1-1. And right then – what immaculate timing that man has – Christian Grey walks into the room. Now? Really?
I cross my legs quickly and he zeroes in on the motion. Stupid Ana. He probably knows the signs. Okay, look cool.
"How are the creative juices flowing?" He asks deadpan.
Oh my God, I want to die. Where is my drink?
"Pretty good so far." Jose says, rolling his eyes at me.
"How are you, Ana?" Christian Grey turns to me and his face is inscrutable but his eyes have a wicked glint to them. He looks really pleased with something, probably himself. I search for some quick-witted comeback but my wits have deserted me at my hour of need.
"Bored." I say anticlimactically. But apparently, I can still make puns.
"That's unfortunate. I'll think of some form of entertainment. Maybe some reading material?" For all the world, he sounds genuinely concerned.
"Depends on the material." I say trying to sound as cool as possible.
"Oh, nothing too exciting. Probably the New York Times. I just finished it, they had a good article on the collapse of the housing market." Still concerned. Bastard. He is playing chess. He expects me to turn this down and then he will ask me what is it that I really want so that he can embarrass me. Well, bring it. I'm ace at chess.
"I already read it this morning. But don't feel bad, I'm sure with your schedule it takes a while to catch up with the news." Hah!
His eyes widen a little and he looks mildly impressed. Then he smiles and shakes his head. "Perhaps you can explain it to me later. That last part about owner, chain of title, declaration of trust, equity stripping, and deed of release had me really worked up." His voice is as polite as ever.
Okay, he's good. I can't top it.
"It's beyond my skillset and understanding, Mr. Grey." I concede. I expect him to smile but instead his face betrays a brief moment of regret, that same trace of loss he held earlier. And even though José is here and looking really annoyed, I want nothing more but to go to Christian and wipe that look away. As it is, I simply mouth "embargo." He gives me an imperceptible nod.
"I'll have Gail bring you two some dinner. I have an old friend visiting me. I'll see you afterwards." And he leaves the room.
José takes his spot and we start again. How different this stage of thinking is. All excitement is gone and all that's left is the lump in my throat. 30 days. Will he give me even those? How am I supposed to split them between him and José? Getting ripped apart worse than I already am was not in my 30-day countdown agenda. Getting a tattoo of a chili pepper on my butt and maybe my belly-button pierced were. Things like going to the gym for once, learning some self-defense, hiking around the Olympic Peninsula, taking a little bottle of dirt with me back to England, and recording all my stomping grounds in this land before saying goodbye. My eyes prickle and I blink the moisture away. Although I put all my willpower against it, my mind lurches 30 day forward at the airport. And strangely, in my mind, the only one there is José. He will see me in that plane. And, if I break down, he will take me to his home and we can both be illegals here. For some reason, I don't see Grey at the airport at all. Is that because his goodbye will be easier or harder?
"Okay, that's it for today," Jose announces. I hop on the floor and stretch my legs a little. They're sore. Thank goodness Jose brought me my sheet. I couldn't have lived through this without it. I clutch it to my front again as Jose puts his things away.
"Are you going to leave them all here?"
"Yes. I probably have a couple more sessions here to get the perspective before I go back to the gallery. But I will sketch you first so you don't waste your last days with this." He says really quietly. I'm only human so I have to wonder if Christian will extend me the same favor when he finally finds out. Or will he insist on this despite my death sentence?
Jose and I walk downstairs. Christian and his friend are nowhere in sight. Taylor meets us here and offers to take Jose home.
"What about you? Are you coming?" He asks me.
I guess I knew he would ask. Will this hurt him? Will it hurt me? Yes and yes. "I think I'm hanging out with Christian tonight." I say quietly expecting the pain in his eyes. Yes, there it is, like clockwork. "But I will see you tomorrow. And plenty after that, too." I sound like I'm begging. Which I am. There's no way I'm giving up time with José, whatever the price. Christian will understand when he learns the truth tomorrow.
José nods but does not smile. The José I know would have given me a hug. The José I just hurt turns and walks out of the room with an erect back, Taylor behind him. No see-you-later, no goodbye.
I run down the hall to Christian's bedroom, fighting the lump in my throat. My clothes are at the foot of the bed where I left them. I go to the restroom, lock the door, and put them on but on a whim decide to keep my new underwear. Who knows what will happen tonight? Truthfully, I may be assuming things because he hasn't even asked me on a date. Maybe I'm staying here, maybe I'm not. But either way, I'll have a souvenir.
The idea of a night here unfold in front of me like the American flag in the immigrations office. I sit on the edge of the bathtub that looks like it could fit about six people in it. The image makes me queasy – who knows how many have been in that tub, sitting here, where I am, perhaps feeling the same despair over Christian Grey as I do. Can I be another number? Can I be something more? Even when the clock is ticking?
Thoughts wail like harpies in my head. No, you can't. Yes, you should. You want it. You can't. Who cares anymore? Do it. Don't do it. José. Goodbye. June 13. Tic Toc. Tic Toc. Tic Toc.
My hand grasps instinctively my father's watch and in that touch, four facts emerge from the rampage.
One: I want Christian Grey but it goes beyond that. Unlikely, improbable, impossible even as it is, I have come to equate him with something fundamental to my existence. Maybe because he began when everything ended. Or maybe because on June 13, when I look down from the plane's window while earth disappears from view, Escala will be the landmark I'll look for. Whatever the reason, I will regret it if I don't at least explore it.
Two: Although my brain has not yet solved the puzzle, by now, it has worked up to Stage Two of my study. Like with everything in science, you first observe, then hypothesize, then test, then conclude. After today, my brain has formed a hypothesis: Christian Grey is dangerous and maybe even disturbed. Not life or death, but something even more precious. Existence vs. non-existence.
Three: José is the opposite. The one that brings you a sheet to cover what another man ruthlessly exposes. The one that never needs to ask what another man viciously demands. The one that gives whatever the other one takes. The home vs. the dream.
Four: I can't have either of them. I've always played by the book. And when, against all adages, that does not work out, the first thing you want to do is burn the book.
I stand up, my decision made. I walk out of his restroom and bedroom and down to the living room. I have my eyes on my red flats, planning my next words. But a voice I've heard before, only once and only over the phone, gets my attention. An Eastern European accent.
"Ah, Christian, great date. You never disappoint."
"You never learn, do you?"
"You know the only way to teach me a lesson." The exquisite Viking blonde touches his shoulder and throws her head back in laughter, the glistening hair tumbling to her waist.
This is Elena who scheduled my appointment at Esclava today. The one that will buy my hair tomorrow. I have never met but her accent is unmistakable. The pit that opens in my stomach does not surprise me. After my monologue in the bathroom, I knew I would feel this way. I stop at the breakfast bar and look down at my flats, focusing only on getting air to my lungs. Foolish Ana. Before I can decide what to do, he sees me.
"Anastasia, are you finished already?" His voice playful. At his question, Elena turns and looks at me like she is watching a fairytale come alive. Her mouth opens a little and she takes a step forward. Christian reacts to that oddly. He angles his body in a way as if he wants to stop her advance. She looks at him and they lock eyes for a long moment. Intensely, like a blinking contest. In my state, I'm surprised to find my brain taking bets. I see that I'm right. She lowers her eyes, with an imperceptible bow of her head. He starts walking towards me and she follows in his wake.
"Anastasia, I'd like you to meet my friend, Elena Lincoln." He emphasizes the word friend, and looks at me in a way that says plainly "listen to my words." It's enough for me. The pit starts to close and disappears completely when he puts his hand around my waist and, angling himself slightly towards me – almost protectively – he turns to her.
"Elena, this is Anastasia Steele. The woman I was telling you about."
I know this is for my benefit and my fingers itch to touch him to tell him "thank you." But a look at Elena and I know he just sent a message to her, too. It's just too subtle for me to understand it.
But she has heard more than his message. She has heard my name and the look she gives me leaves no doubt that she remembers that I'm selling my hair tomorrow. I know that in this moment, she is calculating whether to divulge the secret or not. Her lips curl into slight smile as she reaches her decision. She extends her hand.
"Anastasia, what a pleasure to meet you. Christian has said the most wonderful things about you."
Why did she not mention my hair? She owes me no loyalty. I keep my surprise hidden while I reach for her hand. "Pleased to meet you as well, Elena."
The moment our hands touch though, her eyes change a little. I suddenly feel like I do when Christian stares at me at his most icy. And the effect on me is the same, minus the tingles in her case. My eyebrow fires up in my forehead – a gift from my dad. Her eyes widen slightly and then she looks at Christian. It's hard to decipher it but if I had to guess, I'd say she just told him "if you say so." I don't blink once. She gives me a breathtaking smile then.
"Well, I must be leaving. Anastasia, I'm sure I will see you soon." She walks out without Taylor's customary appearance. She obviously knows the place well. Christian watches her retreating back with obvious annoyance, then he turns to me.
He looks suddenly warm, giddy even. This is the look that confuses me above all others. This sheer joy amidst all the bleakness and despair. But, arrested as I am by him, I can't help the grin the splits my face in two.
"You weren't trying to sneak out, were you?" He says.
"Umm, no. I was coming to find you actually. Probably a good thing I didn't get far. Chances are I would get lost."
He smiles. "Then I think it's time for a tour. I didn't have a chance to do it earlier."
Whatever taste the bathroom monologue and Elena left behind is now gone and in its place is the same joy I felt when he kissed me. The same anticipation, the same need. My eyes fly to the clock on the wall. We struck our embargo deal at 12:45 this afternoon. It is now 8:30 in the evening. I have 16 hours and 45 minutes of embargo left before I tell him. My heart takes off as the rest of the world disappears from view.
He is looking at the clock himself. Then his finger comes under my chin, eyes Mediterranean spring, different from any other time I've seen them.
"I've been looking at the watches all day myself. I'm now detesting the idea of the painting, and have half a mind of firing you despite your masterful performance today." He wraps his hands around my waist and bends his head to mine. I expect the delicious angry kiss but it does not come. This kiss is gentle and slow.
His tongue traces my lips, once, twice, three times, four. He doesn't rush to dance inside my mouth like this morning. It feels like a knock rather than a break-in. My mouth parts in response and it's only then that his tongue comes in. Like before, at the taste, my hands fly to his hair. He smiles against my mouth and his hands clutch my waist tightly and arch me against him. Suddenly the slow pace is not enough for me. I take his lower lip between my teeth and bite it like I wanted to do since the flood in the Replica Room. He growls and loses whatever control he had. His hand fists in my hair and yanks it back roughly. A loud gasp escapes me. I expect his mouth to crush on me again but it doesn't. My head is arched all way back and all I can see is his eyes. They're primal. His other hand wraps around my throat tightly.
"I want you," he snarls, and he looks at war with himself. He is breathing hard and his teeth clamp together and his jaw locks. He closes his eyes and I see the battle rage and finally die on his face. When he opens them, he looks triumphant, like he overpowered a beast. He pulls abruptly and releases my throat. Then he lowers his lips there and gently traces the lines where his fingers were, where the air is now flowing back to my lungs and the blood back to my veins.
I'm on fire. My body is zapping like a down power line. And even in this state, these light kisses feel like an askance for redemption. It's almost as if he is saying he is sorry. I don't know him but I know enough to know that this is new for him. That right now, I should just stay still and let him finish his penance. I tilt my head to side, giving him access to my throat. I feel him smell my hair, my skin, his breathing still hard but calming. When it is finally level with mine, he pulls away and searches my eyes. Like he needs assurance that I'm okay, that we are okay. I take his hand and kiss it.
He finally smiles. "Let's finish that tour." And he takes my hand and walks to the clock. He flips off the switch. Then unplugs the microwave, the stove, the sound system. Huh? Ah, the clocks. He walks me through many rooms, and wherever he sees a clock, he turns it off. We go to his library, and he turns off that clock as well. On our way out, I see a calligraphy quill with a long feather on a shelf. It's beautiful Amherst.
"Don't ask – my sister seems to think that this is a manly pen and got one for me and one for Elliot." He rolls his eyes.
I pick it up gingerly. "It's beautiful," I whisper, caressing his cheek with it. He takes it from my hand and runs it over my lips, my jawline, my neck, my collarbones and my breathing becomes shallow. His eyes are almost melancholic.
"What's the matter?" I ask and risk a touch to his face. He swallows once and looks at me.
"Sometimes all a man wants is to have a feather-light touch." He says almost like a regret. I don't like it.
"I like your touch." I say firmly, my foot itching to stomp. He smiles but does not say anything. He takes my hand in his, the feather in the other, and we walk out of the library, to the hall, switching off more clocks. We are finally in his bedroom. He unplugs his alarm and takes off his Audemars, pins out the dial, and shoves it in his dresser. His eyes are liquid fire and he walks towards me with single-minded focus.
My breathing speeds up, my lungs reach for air, the bottom of my belly is clenching and unclenching, and every muscle is coiled and tensed. I'm ready. I want this. He reaches me then and his hand touches me face, looking at me questioningly, for permission. I can only nod and reach for my father's watch. His hand wraps around it and he shakes his head. Oh yeah, immunity. He thinks I need immunity tonight. The thought should scare me but it doesn't. He grasps the watch like he needs it for strength. Then he looks at me with a pure smile.
"Let the time stand still, Anastasia."